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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

E-Newspapers

I was reading an online commentary about newspapers and their business models the other day. Basically, the opinion was that newspapers are slowly letting themselves die by sticking with user-antagonistic business models that prioritize tracking over efficiency, cancellation-friction over customer friendliness and so on.

That is all so true.

This reminded me of being a college student. I wasn’t subscribed to any single newspaper (this was before the Internet was a ‘serious’ thing). Every evening, I would walk over to the kiosk and browse through different newspapers before deciding to buy one. Often, I would end up picking more than one, especially on weekends.

In a lot of countries, the quintessential newspaper kiosk was also a way to bring society together and to discuss events and debate them. Sadly, most of these are on their way out. Even in Amsterdam, which didn’t really have much of a kiosk culture, there are only 2 booksellers I know that sell any non-Dutch periodicals. Newspapers are hard to procure unless you commit to a long-term at-home delivery subscription.

This brings me to my main point — just like we were able to buy newspapers just this once, why can’t we subscribe to electronic versions of the same media outlets for just a day? I can understand that part of this is because of higher transaction costs online where cash just doesn’t work. Even then, I am sure that a lot of customers would not mind a little markup given the flexibility to not have to commit to a yearly subscription.

A few companies have tried to come out with per-article or monthly all-you-can-consume subscriptions to a catalog of newspapers and magazines, but they are hardly profitable. Just like music services, there really is no way to make a profitable business renting out content unless the producers/owners are on board and price it as such, fit for rental consumption.

Now, more than ever in our lifetimes, we need reliable sources of news and current affairs. If you could afford it, do subscribe to a newspaper and keep them alive, and while you’re signing up, make sure to tell your favorite news source to provide a day-subscription. It’s the only way to keep us sane.

Categories
Politics Tech and Culture

A Technology Proposal for Amsterdam’s New 1.5m Society

The city of Amsterdam recently invited (archive) proposals from residents and companies to help it plan the path ahead in the new normal — a 1.5m society. The goal was to invite creative ideas to help businesses deal with the changes while making sure that they stay in business. The odd thing about pitching ideas is that we’re in an unprecedented situation — there’s no collection of best practices or historical lessons that could be tweaked and turned into something applicable for the modern world.

At the same time, while many ideas would possibly revolve around an app for this, or an app for that, a delivery platform, or a new social networking app for business, I am not sure that’s the right way forward. Not after all the inequities proliferated by ‘big-tech’ in the last decade. The last thing anyone wants is one corporation being the gatekeeper of all physical commerce.

So, is the solution to instead trust the Government? I think, fundamentally, smaller government at the city level is a lot more trustworthy than national policy making. We do, after all, depend on the city to read our grievances when it comes to parking spaces or for sanitation of waste collection. Amsterdam is in a unique situation where it has a woman mayor and where a lot of the infrastructure surrounding business activities is already digitalized.

The proposal I submitted is below. I am not uniquely qualified or even have the organizational structure to action on it, but I do believe that something like this is the way forward in the near short term without succumbing to mission creep.

PS: I know there are grammatical errors :o) I typed it up at the last minute this morning.

Categories
Tech and Culture

Facebook Pages as a Website Alternative

We have been getting our feet wet with starting our first business over the past few weeks; it has been fun; it has been exhilarating. While in the digital world you measure performance by metrics such as user counts and reviews, in the real world, people come back to you and give you verbal compliments. They refer your products to others who might enjoy them as well.

It is something I wish that I had done earlier!

Now, with a business comes the overhead of various things, one of which is building and maintaining your business’s online presence. Websites are hard enough, not to mention keeping them safe and secure, that a lot of businesses end up with terrible websites that take a lot of time and money to get done by outside contractors.

We had the same dilemma as we purchased a domain and then spent time and money buying and learning various WordPress themes to figure out the best for us. This is even before you start generating content that would ultimately draw customers in. In our events driven business, a lot of this content is in the form of photos and videos. The website also needs to have things like calendar feeds and a way to sign people up for your upcoming events. It would be great to be able to do live videos and respond to people in real time.

Clearly, this is not a simple website we are talking about.

After a lot of tweaking the theme, I came upon an idea – how about redirecting every visitor on our website to our Facebook Page. We needed the Page anyway since that’s how we communicate with our customers and share pictures. Might as well just make it our business website. The only thing missing is email, but that’s an easy problem to solve with the help of any business email provider that supports custom domains.

Facebook Pages provide blogging capabilities, photo albums, apps for business owners as well as consumers, live messaging, and above all, a marketing and analytics platform that really helps in reaching out to the best customers. I am not sure why they haven’t already started selling branded webpages as a service, much like their FB at Work product.

Setting up required a little bit of effort because they don’t natively provide this as a service. This means that you still need to set up your web server to redirect requests to Facebook. At this time, I haven’t set up any custom links on the server, but there is potential in the future to set up links like <yourdomain>/blog to redirect to your Facebook Page’s Notes section.

Now I can focus all my time and energy on one medium. This will definitely change in the future as the business evolves and it would not be feasible to expect every site visitor to have a Facebook login, or be able to use it for e-commerce. Hopefully, Facebook would start offering a more business-ready toolkit by that point.

Categories
Life and Personal

Power of Simple Metaphors

I love talking; I love discussing matters of philosophy and human nature. The strange dichotomy of human existence is that what makes us human also makes us difficult to understand each other. As a result, we often rely on established social norms and behaviors to guide us.

Every so often, you want to ask yourself why things are the way they are; why there are inexplicable patterns surrounding everything from human migration to business development. A theorist would take out their subject compendium and refer you to the works of someone who has performed academic research in that area. Yet, you will be left with dealing with a few assumptions that have no clear basis.

Let me explain what I am getting at. Today, while sipping our morning coffee, V&I started a discussion on simplifying how V approaches her new food entrepreneurship. She was concerned that she did not have a clear path to innovation that would differentiate her business/service from that of established competitors. Classic problem, right. There are dozens of books and university courses that offer to solve exactly this problem.

Then, I started with one of my simple metaphors. That of a train.

When you’re starting a new business, you’re the person with the second class train ticket without reservation, which means you’re going to have to walk all the way to the end of the platform to get into the train. This means that you would have to budget for some time to get to the station and get into your train; you’d probably also have to put up a little fight to get any open unreserved seats so that you don’t have to endure your journey standing up. Life will be a bit tough, especially if reaching your destination means a couple transfers along the way, all complicated by your possession of only a second class ticket without a seat reservation.

So, how do you make your life and journey better? You simply keep catching the same train every day, getting there a little earlier every day to save time, to find a seat, and then getting accustomed to the journey enough that you know precisely when seats open up at stations along the way. After each day of repeating this, you become an expert in the art of traveling on a second class ticket.

There is no need to innovate. You just follow the established playbook of finding a seat, with perseverance.

Then, as you optimize your daily journey, you gradually start reaping benefits of getting to work earlier and in a better state. That leads you to gradually be able to afford a seat reservation, possibly even in first class. You have mastered the playbook.

When do you innovate? How do you get to your destination even faster? Perhaps you could charter an airplane or figure out a combination of rail and road segments. That’s when you innovate. That stage comes long after you’ve made yourself comfortable doing the same thing day in and day out.

This is probably not a perfect metaphor, but it sure does motivate you and make things a whole lot clearer.

The same metaphor also explains human migration. We are all catching the same train to work every day. People in developed countries are riding fast direct trains, whereas there are some stuck riding trains that are slow and often have to endure their journey without a seat. The whole point of migration is to promote yourself to one of those fast trains.

Life is simple.

Categories
Headline Life and Personal

Amsterdam Markets and a New Adventure

One of the best things about living in the Netherlands, and in the center of Amsterdam, in particular, is access to weekly street markets. In a city that is so saturated with grocery stores of all types (organic, raw, vegan, carnivore) and sizes, I find it impressive that the weekly street market remains one of the best places to procure good quality produce and handicrafts.

On sale is food stuffs from all around the world. In our neighborhood, we’re lucky to even have a weekly Wednesday organic produce market where you could find tons of seasonal and fresh vegetables as well as breads. During the summer months, you could also spot little kids bathing in the fountains on the square where the market is held.

The weekly markets afford a unique shopping and product experience that is hard to obtain while shopping online or at your favorite Main Street chain. We have come to make a lot of friends as we enjoy the wonderful waffles and sandwiches every weekend at the market downstairs.

The markets also serve to promote small businesses and entrepreneurship, a large number of them run by women and pensioners. Quite a bit of these businesses graduate to bigger companies and/or complete tie-ups with bigger hospitality companies. All this at a time when there’s entirely too much talk about automation and removal of manual labor; crafts(wo)manship still matters!

The neighborhood Westerpark also has a series of arts and fashion markets throughout the year, more so during the warmer summer months. During the colder times of the year, they usually have one market a month. While these markets are not so much product focussed, you often see a lot of entrepreneurs in niche areas selling things from wooden eyewear frames to custom keychains. As the Dutch would say – the markets are really gezellig.

V and I had been discussing one of her ambitions for a while – that to set up her own food stall with Indian street snacks and the ubiquitous masala chai. This finally bore fruit this past week when she received the go-ahead from the Sunday Market organizing committee to set up her very own stall!  And thus began her preparations. She’s really excited and we hope that it is a hit!

Of course, my job is to only provide support, which I did by helping carry stuff upstairs and performing the shopping chores. She even set up a brand new Facebook page (Delhi 6) for her new venture. In a span of a few hours, the page already had close to 100 likes by our friends. The name comes from the postal code of the Chandni Chowk area of old Delhi famous for its street food.

And hence begins a new adventure. If this goes well, she will set up more stalls at other upcoming markets. The trials with our neighbors and friends have been successful, so there is definitely some good demand for her craft.

If you’re in Amsterdam, you should come visit!